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What is iMessage and How Does It Work?

Angela Stringfellow

Last updated on

Over 1 billion people across the globe own an iPhone. While it’s certainly a popular device, not all iPhone users know the reason why some of their texts appear in blue bubbles while others appear in green.

This is actually Apple’s way of telling you if you’re sending an SMS or an iMessage to your contacts. If the message is green, you sent an SMS and if it’s blue, you sent an iMessage.

SMS vs iMessage

But with a slew of messaging apps like Facebook Messenger, Whatsapp, Snapchat, and iMessage, it’s difficult knowing which option is best for your needs. After all, your phone comes pre-loaded with both SMS and iMessaging capabilities—why does the iPhone switch between the two?

As long as you pay for a data plan with your cell phone provider, you’ll likely use both SMS and iMessage to stay connected with your friends and family. Learn how iMessage works and why it can be a beneficial alternative to other messaging apps for Apple devices.

What is iMessage?

iMessage is a free and secure messaging app that you can use on your iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, or Mac laptop. It came out in 2011 with the release of iOS 5, but in the years since its inception, iMessage has allowed users to send:

  • Messages
  • Videos
  • Photos
  • Stickers

… to other Apple devices over the internet.

iMessage is different from the texting app that comes as the default messaging app on your phone. Known as an over the top (OTT) app, iMessage doesn’t need cell data to work: all you need is an internet connection. Plus, if you send messages over Wi-Fi, there’s no cost to you to send that message, either.

It’s important to remember that iMessage is a messaging app that only works on Apple devices. If you try to send an iMessage to an Android device, your phone will send it as an SMS (green message) instead of an iMessage (blue).

If you have access to both Wi-Fi and a paid data plan through your phone provider, you’ll likely end up switching between either iMessage or SMS depending on:

  • If you’re connected to Wi-Fi
  • If you have a data plan
  • If you’re communicating with other Apple users

Not a fan of iMessage? You can always turn it off in your settings. This means that your phone will only send green SMS messages going forward.

iMessage vs. SMS

It seems like it shouldn’t matter how you communicate with your friends and family, but plenty of factors play into whether your device will send an SMS or an iMessage. Both methods have pros and cons, so it’s important to know how iMessage differs from SMS.

SMS stands for short message service. This is the typical way that cell phones send text messages over a cellular network. You need to pay for a texting plan with your phone carrier to send an SMS and can’t send these messages over Wi-Fi.

iMessage, on the other hand, works when your phone is connected to Wi-Fi. Thanks to this stronger connection, your phone will be able to send multimedia messages faster through iMessage. You don’t need to pay for a texting plan with a phone company to use iMessage, but if you aren’t connected to Wi-Fi and you don’t have a data plan, you won’t be able to send any messages at all.

The Benefits of iMessage

While some iPhone users prefer to disable iMessage, it offers plenty of beneficial features that you just can’t get with a regular SMS message, such as:

  • Message encryption: Keep your messages private with iMessage’s end-to-end encryption.
  • Location sharing: If you’re going on a road trip, you can share your location with other iMessage users so they’re up to date on your ETA.
  • Voice memos: Sick of typing? Send messages using just your voice with iMessage.
  • Message delivery confirmation: You can know for certain if someone received your message if you see a checkmark next to your iMessage.
  • Read receipts: You can also know for sure if someone read your text with iMessage’s read receipts.
  • Real-time typing: Don’t close your iMessage app just yet! The real-time typing dots will tell you if your friend isn’t done with their message yet.
  • Interactive features like stickers, GIFs, and music: Text can get boring. That’s why iMessage includes interactive multimedia options to add more sparkle to your conversations.
  • Pay and receive with Apple Pay: Merge your Apple Pay account with iMessage to quickly send and receive secure payments from your contacts.
  • Messaging via iPads: You don’t need to buy your kids an iPhone to stay in touch with them. Install iMessage on an iPad to stay in touch when you’re connected to Wi-Fi.
  • Undo Send: with the most recent update of the capabilities of iMessage, users can now undo the sent messages.

Because it uses Wi-Fi, iMessage is perfect for chatting with friends and family abroad, too. You don’t need an expensive international phone plan to get in touch: just connect to Wi-Fi and communicate with your network no matter where in the world they live. iMessage also syncs to the cloud, so if you buy a new phone, you can keep all of your iMessages when you switch to your new device.

The Bottom Line

iMessage can be a safer, cheaper, and more interactive way for Apple users to stay in touch with their friends and family. Keep in mind that iMessages aren’t the same as SMS; know how it works so you can choose the option that works best for your wallet, friends, and family.